Skip to main content

All-American Soap Box Derby, The (1936)

Published 1936

Tribute to the American boy as inventor, engineer and sportsman. Shows contestants building their vehicles and the final competition at Derby Downs in Akron, Ohio.

Run time 10:26
Producer Handy (Jam) Organization
Sponsor General Motors Corporation
Audio/Visual Sd, B&W


"The great American boy is hard at work...inventing, creating, building something. The energy that is forever behind both the competitive sports of youth and the desire to build and create new things is the energy that develops industrious, dependable citizens of tomorrow."
One of the greatest public relations stunts ever created in this country, the All-American Soap Box Derby combines spectacle, technology, and masculinity. These three themes are well expressed in this film, apparently the second annual Derby film sponsored by General Motors.
Youth has always been a difficult time, but the Depression years were particularly tough on teenagers. Economic pressure weighed heavily on many teens, especially those sufficiently mature to hold down jobs and contribute to the support of their families but unable to do so because of high unemployment. Many youths took to the road, seeking release from untenable situations at home. A widespread uncertainty and malaise filled the younger generation. Chevrolet sponsored at least four films (the others were An Engineering Widow [1935], One Thousand Hours [1936] and Test Tube Tale) in an attempt to increase younger people's commitment and attention, and to promote engineering and technical careers as essential, interesting, and most of all achievable.
Chevrolet also sought to capture young people's allegiance and direct it towards the free enterprise system. Company official C.P. Fisken said in Chevrolet advertisements: "It's the Soap Box Derby against the soap-box orators. How can you have soap-box orators when thousands and thousands of boys are looking for soap boxes?" Paul Garrett, Chevy's public relations director, said in 1936: "Since 1929 nearly 17 million young people have come of age. What do they think of the ability of industry to provide for their future?...What is going to be their verdict in the current conflict between individualism and the corporate state? If you are interested in the part youth is playing in the modern world, study the records of the dictators of Europe. Each move is built around a proposal to give youth a place in the sun." Chevrolet sponsored scholarship awards for winners until 1972, when it switched its emphasis to other events like the Junior Olympics and America's Junior Miss Pageant.
Although this film celebrates many aspects of the "great American boy," the boys it shows are ultimately judged by their technological prowess. It begins with images of boys shooting marbles, racing, jumping, playing football and wrestling -- in short, engaged in fair and spirited masculine competition. Quickly, though, the image of boy as inventor takes over: builder of model airplanes, architect of treehouses, designer of go-karts. (Naturally, American boys gravitate towards transportation-oriented projects.) The film establishes a composite, ideal American boy: a basement tinkerer and hobbyist destined to enter a laboratory or become an engineer or inventor. This has been a common (and almost exclusively male) theme in advertising and corporate promotion. And in the accelerated age of the 1990s, the lifecycle has become compressed: many teenagers are earning big bucks programming or designing Web sites.
The first Soap Box Derbies were held in 1933 in Dayton, Ohio, and the event became official the next year. In 1935, the race moved to Akron, and by the time this film was made, it was being run on a new course built as part of a WPA project. The course is 953.9 feet long, and the current speed record is Tommy Fisher's: 26.30 seconds.
We learn how preparation for the Soap Box Derby demands a fanatical concern for detail. The rules are complicated and precise, and such factors as weight, wind resistance and lubrication are critical. But there's no anxiety about technology here Ñ everything has a good Midwestern homespun roll-up-your-sleeves elbow-grease feel. A cadre of budding engineers makes it to Akron and the remainder of the film shows the race and awards ceremony. The final closeups of serious-looking boys show their faces superimposed over an American flag. When, and to what end, would their energy and technological expertise be called on?

Ken Smith sez: A deep-lunged narrator exhorts the benefits of this, "the greatest amateur sporting event in the world," and heaps praises on the "red-blooded American boys" who enter it. A well-produced film, shot on location at "Derby Downs" in Akron, Ohio. The Zeppelin car from Pittsburgh wins the Charles F. Kettering trophy for best design.
Close-up of boys shooting marbles
Boys running a race, doing the high jump,wrestling, playing football, and tug-of-war
Boy "inventing", experimenting with a model airplane, boys building a tree house
Boys building go-carts
Boys racing go-carts in the soap box derby
crowds in bleachers, cameras on scaffolding
Close-up of boys faces, looking serious -- some superimposed over a waving American flag

CU circle on dirt with marbles in the center. Camera pulls back for MS of several young boys playing marbles.
Dissolve to CU boy in cap
LS finish line of neighborhood track meet. Boys run towards camera and break ribbon. Crowd of spectators are gathered on both sides of track with houses and trees in background.
Dissolve to LS of boy jumping over bar (low high-jump). He knocks bar off supports. A few spectators and large tree are in background ( Athletics ).
Dissolve to MLS boys wrestling while other boys watch on grass. Take down.
Dissolve to overhead LS of boys wrestling on mat in gym. Others watch
MS 2 boys and referee in boxing ring in large stadium; many spectator stands in background
Dissolve to LS boys in field; football scrimmage; ball is hiked, etc.
Dissolve to CU of boys in a pile (on top of football)
Open to LS boys playing tug-of-war in front of school building. dissolve to CU of tug-of-war. cut to LS of tug-of-war-left team falls down
Fancy wipe to MS boy wiring a ham radio or phonograph
Dissolve to LS of boy winding propeller of model airplane with shadow on wall behind him
Dissolve to LS 2 boys in workshop building large model ship with many sails
Dissolve to LS boys climbing ladder to tree house
Sequence of 7 LS of boys (usually in pairs) attaching wheels to a soap box racer. Different boys in garages, basements, on lawns, in backyards, etc.
LS soap box cars racing past stands of people. Camera tracks cars right to left. Camera tracks from background to foreground down hill. Camera tracks a MS right to left.
CU of trophy on table in front of draped backdrop
Drawing: map of America with large star in the middle. Star shrinks and comes to rest at Akron, Ohio which then appears on the map
LS downtown Akron - cars, people, banners strung across main street. There is a hotel with banner across the street. A band in uniform stands in front of the hotel.
MLS inside of hotel lobby (looks like convention center where red, white, and blue banners hang from the ceiling). Many people are milling about. Sign on far wall reads: Third Soap Box Derby
MLS of "Champions Registration Booth" in lobby. Young men and boys mill about.
MS line of boys in emblem T-shirts and caps on line to window of registration booth
LS lobby of hotel with people in background. LS of a number of soap box racers on display in foreground
Sequence of CU of various designs of soap box racers (8 of them) each in turn displayed in front of a curtain backdrop
MS group of men examining a soap box racer on the platform of a large dial scale
CU of a pyramid of trophies on display against a black velvet background
Posed LS of boys in caps and emblem T-shirts getting onto bus
LS line of 3 buses parked outside of hotel. First bus drives away.
Dissolve to aerial shot of landscape showing soap box derby run
LS of large crowd of people: American flags, Sousaphones, Goodyear blimp in sky
LS looking down soap box derby downs (concrete paved hill). Crowds line sides of run. There are several American flags. Some figures and derby cars are on the run but they are hard to distinguish. Soap box derby / Derby Downs
Dissolve to LS boys in white uniforms and helmets marching up run
MS judges platform which is highly decorated in red, white, and blue, 2 podiums, and an American Eagle. Young man in helmet standing in center while others move around connecting sound equipment, etc.
LS many parked soap box racers with drivers making adjustments on them. Camera pans right to left over lineup of racers.
LS starting line. There are three cars in position
MS of press box elevated by observation box surmounted by a row of international flags. People in box and below it. Sign on box reads "Finish Line, All-American Soap Box Derby"
LS starting line - 3 cars, spectators, official gives start signal with flag. Cars race down hill; camera tracks cars. They pass camera and continue down course followed by two men on motorcycles. Shot culminates in LS down course with American flags and spectators
LS of crowd
LS man waving checkered flag at finish line with stands and banners behind him (non-specific shot--i.e. no cats, no identifying writing)
LS to CU of racer crossing finish line
Various shots of cars on tacks, checkered flags, crowds
LS of 3 racers racing down course. Camera follows them from behind. American flags line the course. Cars go under press box which is elevated above course. They cross finish line. One car spins around and faces the camera. Very good shot.
MS of flat wooden grandstand draped in red, white, and blue banners. 2 men in shirts and ties stand on ground in front of stands conversing with men in the stands. MCU of 2 men in ties conversing with man leaning over banner-draped railing of stands. the two men on ground are holding pith helmets. MS people in press stands. Camera pans right to left. All three shots are non-specific: could be any type of rally or event. Spectators / Grandstands / Soap Box Derby
LS cameramen and tripods atop wooden platform at the edge of the track. Crowds line the track and a tent in the background can be seen.
2 men stand in the middle of the track at the finish line. One holds a large red flag and the other holds a checkered flag.
VS of racers on track, finish lines, crowds, etc.
MS track with spectators. Black car tows trailer with 3 racers and drivers up the hill. Camera tracks car and trailer past spectators.
VS of races
CU boy in car surrounded by crowd. someone is holding a checkered flag behind him. He is holding his helmet and being congratulated.
CU boy in racer holding helmet and mother. she embraces him.
Racers being towed up hill on trailer
VS of race
Crowd and officials milling around racing car after race
MS trophy being awarded to helmeted boy in racer by official in felt hat. Crowds surround them. Awards
CU 3 boys in helmets. Middle boy holds trophy
LS of large crowd milling about. Crowds
Dissolve to LS 4 tiers of banquet tables with boys in caps eating. Behind them is the "American Soap Box Derby" banner. Ceremonies / Banquets
Dissolve to MCU boy in emblem shirt and cap being presented 'diploma' by man in a suit. they stand behind a long table with a microphone and in front of a soap box banner. MS second boy being presented with 'diploma'
LS boys at banquet tables as above
MLS of 2 men at podium. One is making a speech. Banner behind them reads "American Soap Box Derby." Boy enters from left and is presented with a large framed certificate.
VS of awards and trophies being presented to boys. Different styles of trophies, speech making, etc.
Double exposure of LS of racing and CU of boys' faces. Then various boys' faces against race, against plain dark background, against waving American flag. Then just flag. Fade out. Melanges / Boys / Flag / Soap Box Derby.


Reviewer: Enrique Morata - - September 30, 2013
Subject: great
very good, those carts were very well made. Just put an engine on them and you get a go kart.
Reviewer: longfade - - June 17, 2010
Subject: What a gem.
I view these old films for many reasons, not the least of which is simply to see what the past looked like; how people dressed, how cars and buildings and streets looked, etc., and on that level this one satisfies big time with lots of great eye-candy. The kids are a treat to watch and I particularly love the scene at 1:46, where you can see them unconsciously affecting the "working men" poses they probably see their dads do. Really cute.
Reviewer: ERD. - - January 8, 2007
Subject: "All American Soap Box Derby" good for its time
The bombastic narration probably fit when this film was presented in the large movie theatres of the 1930's. I found the production a well done interesting period piece. It covered the topic well. Using a partriotic theme, I wonder what was the fate of many of those boys who grew up and went off to World War II in the 1940's.
Reviewer: Christine Hennig - - April 27, 2003
Subject: All-American Soap Box Derby
General Motors sponsored this film, as well as the derby, which was supposed to be a tribute to the "All-American Boy." The bombastic narration lends a campy air to the proceedings, which is good, because otherwise they'd be pretty dull, especially the awards banquet at the end. Campy moments include the opening montage of "friendly competition," which goes from friendly games of marbles on to progressively more aggressive sports, such as football, wrestling, and boxing, all while the narrator expounds on how this builds character; the closing montage of faces of boys dissolving into each other, seemingly communicating a message of conformity, and the closing assertion that these boys would go on to fight other battles which is superimposed over an American flagÂÂconsidering the timing of the film you can't help wondering how many of them would die in World War II. A ripe film for msting.
Ratings: Camp/Humor Value: ****. Weirdness: ***. Historical Interest: ****. Overall Rating: ****.
Reviewer: Spuzz - - December 21, 2002
Subject: All Hail The Boy!
Wonderfully patriotic soap box derby short which features the 1936 races. Plenty of exciting races is blended well with the almost drooling narration, which is somewhat perverse in it's passion for the 'boy'. Great scenes of other boys playing sports too, such as tug of war, football and a great boxing scene. Reccomended.
Prelinger Archives
by Unknown
Prelinger Archives
by Unknown
Prelinger Archives
Prelinger Archives
( 1 reviews )
Prelinger Archives
by General Electric Company